Collecting adjectives from students to describe Carol Bruess results in a word cloud that could seemingly float away purely on the power of positivity: expressive, enthusiastic, honest, open, special, cheerful, loving, likable, fun, cool, effervescent, kind, gracious, passionate, confident, brave, empowering, transformative.
Well, you get the point.
“What a woman,” senior Genevieve Gates said. “She’s the type of person everyone wants to meet at some point.”
For 19 years, the communication and journalism professor and Family Studies program director has embodied all those adjectives and more. Bruess brings a whirlwind of energy, optimism, intelligence and unique style everywhere she goes, from leading her classrooms to one-on-one coffee rendezvouses to her weekly segment on WCCO’s “Relationship Reboot.”
Bruess is guided by decades of research in her focus area of interpersonal communication, and a proverbial compass she said always points her actions toward maintaining healthy relationships and being kind. Countless people take pride in calling her a friend, role model, mentor, colleague.
“She’s just one of my favorite people in the world. She makes you feel so special; every time you see her there’s something special about that day,” COJO administrative assistant Oyuna Uranchimeg said.
“She has been one of the best elements of my education, one of the best elements of my time at St. Thomas,” Meredith Heneghan ’16 said. “Ultimately, her goal as a professor and a role model and motivator is to help people learn how to be better in whatever they’re doing. … That’s her ultimate goal, to say to herself and the people around her, ‘How do we be better?’ And she does.”
Bruess was always artistic growing up in the small Wisconsin town of Milton, so it was no surprise that she pursued an art degree as an undergraduate at St. Norbert College. Doubting her choice after a bad internship experience, though, she took interpersonal communication as an elective fall of her senior year with Carol Cortez, who quickly became a mentor.
“That was really my lightbulb going off. It was, ‘You can study this stuff?’” Bruess said. “It all clicked together that this is what I wanted to dedicate my life to, because it will help other people, help me and my current and future family.”
There was just the simple matter of getting accepted into a graduate interpersonal communication program after graduating with an art degree. Luckily, Bruess had exactly the support she needed: Cortez helped her to complete a great application, and Judy Pearson, then-director of graduate studies at Ohio University’s School of Interpersonal Communication, was willing to take Bruess under her wing when everyone else passed on her application.
That support has shaped the approach Bruess now takes at St. Thomas, where countless students have benefited from her encouragement.
“I was able to identify a mantra, or phrase, for me and how I see my role in relationships with my students at this time and place: I see myself in this challenge and support role as someone who can offer radical encouragement,” Bruess said. “When a student feels radically supported and encouraged, it’s incredible what they can do.”
Bruess’ dedication to radical support isn’t lost on the students who prosper from her influence in their lives, inside or outside the classroom.
“She does everything above and beyond. Even having coffee with her you feel like your life has been changed,” Gates said. “She makes you understand that what you’re saying and doing matters, and you can even be more than you are now.”
“She has a way of striking up personal relationships that was really motivating for me,” Heneghan said. “I realized how much she cares about my personal development by her willingness to help me out and lead me to transformative things. That was awesome to realize there are professors like her who have specific interest in your development as a student.”
With more than 100 students and advisees each year, Bruess has plenty of opportunities to build relationships that benefit Tommies.
“Someone once told me… that programs don’t change people, relationships do,” Bruess said. “I think about that all the time. We have an incredible institution and programs here, but I know and believe that those relationships that I get the opportunity to create with my students are what matter most. … They are so life-giving.”
As Bruess realized at St. Norbert, one of the best parts of her field is that interpersonal communication is applicable to so many people and in so many ways. In a world with ever-changing modes of communication in relationships, Bruess’ work and teaching hit home.
“I knew when I first chose to go into this field that I have an obligation to make sure this makes lives better. Whether it’s my students’ lives, my own family’s lives, lives in the community,” Bruess said. “I think we’re obligated to take what we know and love and what we do best, and make sure it makes lives better outside of our universities.
Carol Bruess, Ph.D., and John Buri, Ph.D., recently brought their decades of experience studying relationships together to talk about the dynamics of communicating and why, despite all the available knowledge, so many people struggle to overcome the communication challenges of their own relationships.
This taped interview has been edited for clarity and length.
“Our universities are parts of communities. ‘We’re not just in the city, we’re of the city.’ [Former University of St. Thomas President] Father [Dennis] Dease always used to say that. If I’m not doing that, I’m not doing my job. As someone who knows how to discern the best of the best research on this topic, I see it as an obligation.”
That line of thinking has inspired Bruess’ work in the community throughout her career, including in perhaps her most well-known role as an expert on WCCO’s television segment, “Relationship Reboot,” where Bruess and Kirsten Lind Seal, Ph.D., join anchors Jason DeRusha and Kylie Bearse weekly to “discuss contemporary topics essential for healthy, diverse relationships and respond to viewer relationship dilemmas.”
“We value that kind of translational work at St. Thomas. It’s part of our mission,” Bruess said. “It helps to be at an institution that has as its mission to be all for the common good. That means if you want to take your research and put it in this outside venue for the community, great. I’ve been rewarded professionally here for doing that kind of work, and I’m grateful. It’s important to feel you’re valued in your work, because it inspires more hard work.”
It’s appropriate Bruess uses the medium of television to help share her knowledge: An undeniable aspect of her personality is the visual. Her unique fashion and style most often is exhibited in the clothes she makes herself. Bruess, her husband of 25 years and 16-year-old daughter live just a block from campus, and those who have been to her house (or have read the Minnesota Monthly magazine profile on her fashion and home decor credentials) understand how much art is a part of who she is.
“At the core, I’m a high aesthetic person,” Bruess said. “[Art and fashion] bring me so much joy, and if it brings other people joy, too, that’s great. Joy is contagious. If I’m feeling joy, I’m a better teacher, a better mentor.”
The art of her attire also creates a fitting visual backdrop for the daily location where Bruess operates: the intersection of art and science.
“Relationships really are a work of art, and there’s also a little bit of science in there,” Bruess said. “We can learn these behaviors and we have these disciplines that give us insight. There’s so much science, longitudinal data that can predict what those [relationships] looks like.”
By being informed by decades of research on interpersonal communication and constantly working to live out the benefits of what her field can offer, Bruess is a walking, talking role model of how art plus science equals a dynamic force.
“She’s one of those professors who lives what she teaches, and loves what she teaches,” senior Jane Swingle said. “Students see how much she genuinely loves what she does and they aspire to have that in their own lives.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.